Turning Socratic Lecture Notes Into A Handout

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By Rory D. Bahadur, Washburn University School of Law

This semester I was desperate to increase the engagement in my civil procedure class.  These were upper division students who were taking the “other” civil procedure class.  My institution, in response to civil procedure being included on the MBE examination, revamped the civil procedure curriculum.  The class is divided into a 4-credit class called civil procedure I which deals with the rules, pleading, motion practice and subject matter jurisdiction. For the most part students find this class engaging and directly related to what most of them will be doing in their clerkships.

Then in their third semester of law school students are required to take the 2-credit, civil procedure II class.  This aforementioned other class, deals with the Erie doctrine, personal jurisdiction, res judicata, collateral estoppel, appeals and other topics students, at least in my experience, find less exciting.

In the latter half of the semester, I was scheduled to teach the right to a jury trial including the dreaded Beacon Theaters and Dairy Queen.  I was keenly aware that the Socratic method had outlived its usefulness in this class where students found the material really difficult.  Detecting a lack of engagement by the students who were not on the Socratic spot, I decided to try something different.

I plan classes around questions and my lecture notes include the questions and the answers to the questions I eventually hope to guide the students to via a Socratic discussion.  For this particular class I simply went through my lecture notes and deleted the answers.

I distributed this “questions only” document to the class at the start of what was originally planned as a Socratic lecture on the topic.  Next I broke the class into groups of about 4 and we spent the class time having them come up with the answers to the questions in groups.

The level of engagement was incredible.  The class was transformed into a beehive of activity and I would call on one group and ask them to discuss what they thought the answer was.  If the answer was not completely teased out then I would call on another group.

In addition to increasing engagement, the peer based method allowed faster and more confident responses to the questions.  In the groups students were anonymous to me anyway for brief periods that I allocated to them working as a group.  They were more relaxed and were able to come up with more complete answers to the questions than if I had one student targeted in the usual Socratic manner with all the associated stress of being “the one.”

I used the introductory material of the lecture in this way and then we went on to a more traditional Socratic class for the more complex aspects of the right to jury trial.  However having employed this collaborative and engaged pedagogy for the first segment of the class, the engagement in the remainder of the more traditionally conducted class was much higher than was the norm previously.  I employed it a few more times in the semester.

This is a very simple way to increase class engagement that lead to no extra labor on the part of a Socratic teacher, other than a quick edit of preexisting lecture notes.  As I type this it also dawns on me that this method could be used as the basis of a flipped classroom where students can be given the questions before class so that their reading is more focused and the actual class time can be spent discussing the doctrine in great depth because the students would likely have gleaned more from the reading.

Finally, I used an assessment trick I learned from Michael Schwartz which allowed me to gage the efficacy of this technique.  I handed out 3X5 flash cards to each student later on in the semester and basically asked, what topic was foggiest and what topic was clearest for them in the class.  Many students wrote the equivalent of, “The clearest things for me were whatever we went over with the handouts.”

Attached is the document I described above which I used for the introductory right to jury trial class.